A childhood should be filled with love and joy.
A childhood should be filled with play and imagination.
A childhood should give space to be and a secure and happy place to thrive.
Not many of the girls I work with in juvie had or have that. We take childhood for granted or as a given. I work with girls whom childhood was taken away from, and to my amazement and awe, their spirit is not broken, their laughter is not lost.
That is why I love doing theatre with them. We play, we act, I bring puppets and masks, and I see their childhood. Actually, I see them turn back into children and it is truly amazing.
When we start the program, I stand before a cynical tough, sometimes almost lifeless group of girls. It’s hard to see youth, so old. It’s sad to see fifteen, sixteen, seventeen-year-olds who think they are at the end. When I feel overwhelmed, I try and remember that my job, all of our jobs, it to light the path, and say, “Look what lies ahead. It can be brilliant; hard, very hard, but nevertheless brilliant.”
It is our job to walk with them on that path that too is hard, sometimes very hard.
The week of the show is a really challenging week. I have to let go of perfection; they have to take responsibility, rehearsals... (Who wants to do rehearsals? They are tedious, long, and boring).
I have to hold my group tight through the last few sessions before the show. I have to reinforce them, reinforce their voice and their performance over and over again. They DO NOT believe there will be an audience. “Who’s gonna come see us?”
Thank God for my friends and community that show up and schlep an hour, to be present for me and the girls. When the girls see an audience, they are truly shocked to the core.
Today I gave out scripts. I have a really small group – five girls, my fabulous five. This is half of the amount of girls that I usually have, a few were released early for good behavior and for some the heat was just too much (I usually don’t run the program in the summer).
This group has taught me so much, because when it is hard that is where you learn. And they were harder than usual. Because it is a small group, they all have big parts and participate in all the readings and skits. When I hand out the scripts they are smiling and happy. I guess at the end of the day, though, every and all actors, from Broadway to juvie, look for and count the amount of lines they have. They all have a lot, and it is pretty much equal. The script is compiled of things they wrote throughout the program.
We sat in a tight circle and read the script. It was the first time that in a first reading there was so much joy. I think to myself, maybe having a small group of performers is good. They each have a significant place and really feel heard.
We start to read and one says, “This is great.”
The other, “I never did anything like this. I love this.”
“Wow, Ms. How did you write this?”
“I didn’t,” I said. “You did.”
“What?” they said in complete and utter shock. “No way.”
“Yes way,” I say.
“I wrote this?”
“Yes you did – I swear.”
And there is a big, big smile.
“Did I write this?” another asks.
“Yes,” and I am laughing. “You guys, believe me. I couldn’t make this up.”
Truthfully, when I was typing and compiling their words the night before, I too was a little shocked. I look at the five that are left and I am content. And I think this is a good thing. It really isn’t about the numbers, and actually, in this case less is really, REALLY more.
And then my tough, rough, now-turned-soft gang-banger says, “You know Ms., in the beginning I thought I don’t want to do this, its bullshit and stupid but I like it, and now, well, I’m gonna play and have fun and have the childhood I never had.”
I look at her, and she and the girl next to her are giggling about something in the script, and I see a child, exactly the way she should be; happy, satisfied, having fun. I hope that this moment will last, and the taste of the enjoyment will have the power to move her away from the darkness that awaits her at home.
I wish that I could change the childhood she had, but I know I can’t. I can only hope, yearn and pray that the sliver she had today, and in the next few times we meet, as well as the show itself will motivate her, and give her the strength she needs to change her path.
Because at the end of the day? THAT is what a happy, loving childhood can do.